New technology has always driven changes in farming, and there is more to come. There are different solutions for each farming business but there is a common denominator that digital technology and data analysis is the foundation for better management, improved productivity and sustainable and profitable farming.
The green revolution from the 1960s saw crop and livestock yields significantly increase, driven by scientific advances in breeding, nutrition, and control of pests and diseases. It was a success in terms of food production, which was a priority at the time. But it was not without problems, in particular the impact it had on the environment.
This opens the door to what is being called the fourth agricultural revolution, where technology and data create opportunities for different ways of farming that produce high-quality food with a reduced environmental impact.
Technology and farming activity
Whether or not you like the idea of digital technology, it has already transformed how farming businesses are run. You just need to think of the power and capability of our smart phones, the rise of online banking, business transactions, access to information and accurate weather data.
In machinery, GPS is standard in tractors, as is equipment that monitors and records key data automatically. Precision farming techniques such as nutrient mapping, variable rate seed and fertiliser applications, yield mapping, irrigation and controlled traffic farming are commonplace. Technology in livestock systems is increasing, from the simplest of livestock CCTV monitors through to automatic milking parlours as well as the use of Electronic Identification (EID) to collect liveweight gain.
The agritech business is booming. Global investment in agritech quadrupled over five years to more than $20bn in 2019, with a 38% rise in the ‘novel farming’ segment, which invests in robotic insect farms and vertical and indoor farming systems. The US and China are leading the way, while the UK is the lead investor in Europe.
The potential to transform farming has been recognised by government investment through the UK Research Institute (UKRI), which has a £90m Transforming Food Production Challenge fund. This fund aims to help businesses, researchers and industry transform food production to meet the growing demand for food, reduce emissions, minimise waste and improve soil. Projects to date include autonomous growing systems, algae production, demonstration of robotic technology on farm, dairy cow tracking devices, and in-field potato growth systems for selective harvesting.
At a farm level, investment in technology can make business sense but it can also be risky. Defra is planning to support this through a new Farming Investment Fund that will include grants for new equipment and technology. This is expected to be available from October 2021. In Wales, the proposals in the Agriculture (Wales) Bill White Paper outline the new Sustainable Farming Scheme that will provide funding for new technology on farms from 2024. In the meantime, the Welsh Sustainable Production and Sustainable Farming Grants are available.
What is the vision for the future?
We all want a profitable, competitive and thriving agriculture sector, with land farmed in a way that respects the environment and builds resilience for long-term security for individual businesses and the industry. How will technology support this?
Use of precision farming techniques is set to become the norm with the development of sensors, robots and drone technologies to support crop and livestock husbandry. New developments on photo recognition, soil mapping and crop and livestock monitoring are already being introduced.
Technology has value in all farming systems in providing more accurate and timely data that allows better decision making
Smart farming is the next stage that uses precision farming techniques with automated farm machinery to take more timely and accurate actions. Smart farming will also blend data gathered from the farm alongside external data such as weather to forecast pest or disease development. There are already a number of agronomy platforms that simplify and improve crop management through improved data management. Data sharing to inform models that can provide information back to the farm, such as disease progression or yield predictions, will also become prevalent. New farming solutions are also made possible by use of technology, particularly around vertical farming and indoor farming, that uses highly controlled environments to grow crops and robotics for fruit picking.
Overcoming other obstacles
Given the potential transformative nature of technology in how we farm, it is important to look at both sides of the argument. The technologies that win and become widely adopted will be those that provide real and cost-effective advantages to farmers.
The shift to robotics that pick crops, milk cows and apply precise crop protection product have many advantages, but the development of indoor farming and synthetic lab grown meat may result in some fundamental changes that may be challenging to the farming sector.
The rapid adoption of beneficial new technology by farmers is not always possible. The government has committed to 100% mobile connectivity, and gigabit capable broadband connections to 85% of the population by 2025. This is a real barrier to investment if you are in an area of poor connectivity. The CLA is actively lobbying to make changes to improve this situation. There is also a demand conundrum driven by low confidence and skills that are needed to get the best out of new technology and equipment, so providing support for digital skills specific for the farming sector is vital.
Agritech has many proven benefits that has led to widespread adoption. New developments could see farming transformed, with improved efficiencies and new entrants attracted to the sector. Technological solutions should not be seen as the preserve of ‘intensive’ or large farms.
Technology has value in all farming systems in providing more accurate and timely data that allows better decision-making. This is just as important, or perhaps even more so, on low input systems or for those using regenerative approaches. Similarly, there are many benefits for smaller farms, although it does need to be cost-effective. Ultimately, there is no replacement for good crop and livestock husbandry skills, but the right technology can help deliver cost-effective improvements.